The Three Pillars

D&D Next has posited that the Fantasy RPG Genre is built on three main pillars: Combat, Roleplaying, & Exploration.

Over the course of the last year, we’ve distilled the essential experiences of D&D down into three general categories: exploration, roleplaying, and combat. We believe these form the three main pillars of gameplay in D&D, and, while broad, they can help guide our design.

A part of the design philosophy going forward is that each of those three elements contains some very specific things that contribute to the game and culture that is Dungeons & Dragons. However, we also know that individual DMs, players, and gaming groups might favor one of those elements over another; of course, sometimes they might favor one element over the others in one session, and then completely reverse that preference in the next. The goal, then, is to support all three of those elements in the design of the game in such a way that the individual gaming group can choose its focus and have a satisfying game experience. This doesn’t mean we necessarily need the same amount of game mechanics supporting each; obviously, combat has tended more toward detail and more rules support, and that may well be true going forward, but we also want to make sure we’re paying a similar amount of attention to the other two experiences.

This philosophy is something we want to extend beyond just character design; it should affect adventure design, monster design, setting design, and every other aspect of the game. Our goal is to make it so that you make choices for your character that speak to your preferred play style, and that it’s OK to do so even if other members of your party make choices pointing toward a different play style. Adventuring demands a certain amount of competence in all three areas of the game, but when you customize your character you might push yourself more in one direction or another.

First of all, I pretty firmly agree with those three pillars as being the core elements of an RPG.  The question is, what does that mean from a design perspective?  Does it mean that, in 10 levels, all classes should have 3 combat abilities, 3 exploration abilities, and 3 interaction abilities?  Does it mean that the ranger has 5 exploration abilities and the bard has 5 interaction abilities?  Should races have 1 of each?  Maybe they come at different levels, so that a more military race has a combat power first (and thus usable for more of the character’s career) and a woodland race has their exploration power first?  Class design begs the same question to an even larger extent.  Do you make the cleric take an interaction ability at first level when the fighter is taking a combat ability, OR do you have all classes follow a template that looks something like:

  1. Early Class Abilities
  2. Advanced Class Abilities
  3. Combat Ability
  4. Exploration Ability
  5. Interaction Ability
  6. Special Class Feature
  7. Combat Ability
  8. Exploration Ability
  9. Interaction Ability
  10. Class Capstone Feature

Should we be spending much time building Exploration abilities? What does that look like?  Maybe they could unlock versions of fast travel.  Maybe they could allow you to do away with keeping food on your character sheet.

What about interaction powers?  I could discuss player skill vs character skill in circles before we even started designing what interaction powers look like.  Maybe something like this Racial power:

Sincerity: Your character gains a wild die when attempting to persuade someone using facts your character believes are true.

How much of these different pillars should be impacting the game mechanically?  Should they truely be given equal footing in the progression of a character?  With only 10-20 levels, doing so would either substantially reduce the number of combat skills you are used to getting over the life of your character, or substantially increase the number of total skills you’re used to getting (and here I am trying to simplify things!).  How do you think characters should be balanced between the three pillars, or within a single pillar?

4 thoughts on “The Three Pillars

  1. connorbros

    I’m a big fan of the three pillars thinking for D&D specifically, if only because it really highlights that combat is at best one-third of the experience and I’m a fan of design attention to non-combat gaming.

    One thing which I think has been mentioned about D&D Next and relates here is the idea that an ability isn’t necessarily just a ‘combat’ ability or an ‘exploration’ ability. I think my ideal is that exploration and roleplaying have enough design attention (even if that doesn’t mean ‘more mechanics’) that a designer can look at each ability as it is created and say ‘This has this effect in combat, this effect on roleplaying and this use in exploration’. And if it’s not obvious, then they can expand their thinking from a narrow ‘maneuver’ to what it means for the character’s training to have developed this technique.

    A shallow example might be something like an acrobatic dodge, which is a defensive or movement option in the heat of combat, represents a certain amount of discipline or playfulness in roleplaying (or just a link with a traveling circus at some point in the past or present), and means the character is more limber and mobile for getting in and out of tight spaces or vaulting to-or-from inaccessible areas in exploration. Rather than independently develop combat powers, skills for interaction/exploration and background details, everything that adds to a character can be looked at from the perspective of each of three pillars.

    Some ‘abilities’ will obviously lend themselves more to one pillar than another, and that’s okay, but if every ability is at least considered in this light (or at least -can- be considered in this light, if the player/DM so chooses) then that’s a great start.

    Anyways, enough generic blab, I hope you find a solid balance in your design, and I enjoy reading the thinking you put into it. =)


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Thanks Dustin. I know there was a wave of blog discussion during 4e, including on a blog I used to write for, At-Will, which would describe non-combat uses for all of those combat-oriented 4e powers. No doubt quite a few powers that on the surface look like combat powers could be used in exploration or negotiation, although sometimes it started to feel a little bit silly trying to re-skin them that way. Sure, you could intimidate someone with most every combat power, but at the end of the day, why not have a power that addresses the pillar more directly. I think it’s a tall order to ask that all of the powers serve triple-duty here. So the answer, I think, is to decide whether or not you want to mechanize role-playing more than dialogue out of the character’s mouth and potentially a die-roll. Should there be role-playing powers. I’m inclined to experiment with “yes” to this question, which then leads me to wonder how to balance the classes between the three pillars, or even within a single pillar.

      1. connorbros

        Yeah, it does get silly when you’re trying to come up with the roleplay value of a leg sweep maneuver (break dancing?), but I guess that comes down to personal approach and scope. I think if something is so narrow, then it becomes hard for me to relate to it in the fiction. How much training does it take to learn just a leg sweep? Are none of those skills transferable, and shouldn’t that be represented somehow? This article ( had me thinking about ‘how big should a single character element be’, and I found myself moving from thinking that small and modular being the way to something a bit larger being the norm, ideally making more sense in all the pillars. Then, if a character wants to be a gruff combat specialist, they master entire combat styles instead of just a single move, at the expense of transferable skills.

        Ultimately, mechanizing role-playing is not easy, and sometimes not even right. As always, just thinking about it is the first step though, and I’d love to hear the results of your experiments. In the digital space, I’m working on mechanizing a conversation system (that still feels like conversation hopefully) rather than a combat system for a currently really-early-stage RPG, and while I think we’re on to something promising, there are so many pitfalls to avoid.


      2. JackOfHearts Post author

        Looking forward to seeing what you have on that, since it always does feel a bit conceptually unfair for players to get to use their imaginary character’s bodies, but not also be forced to use their imaginary character’s intelligence and charisma, etc. I know Alexis, over at Tao of D&D, was working on a project to mechanize role-playing encounters when there was a clear winner/loser in the encounter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s